TV Review: The Last of Us, Episode 1

By Matthew Moorcroft

Highest Recommendation

  • Directed by Craig Mazin
  • Starring Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey, Nico Parker, Anna Trov
  • TV-MA

The discourse surrounding so called “cinematic video games” is so pervasive nowadays that it’s genuinely hard to remember a time where The Last of Us, originally released in 2013, was seen as revolutionary achievement. And while many games have tried to replicate it’s cinematic, one-take approach to storytelling to varying success, The Last of Us, and by extension it’s polarizing (and yet equally as enthralling) sequel The Last of Us Part II remain pinnacles of the genre and rightly so.

So it comes to no surprise that the HBO adaptation, which seeks to be as faithful a recreation as it is as it’s own lavishly produced beast, is very good, though I think you’d be shocked to find out exactly how good it actually is. Turns out the real success of The Last of Us is that the story is just genuinely great regardless of medium – which is inherently a story about fathers and daughters, the efforts we go for survival, and the “things we do for love” taken to it’s upmost extreme. Craig Mazin, hot off of Chernobyl, and Naughty Dog director Neil Druckmann bring their A-game here to deliver a fantastic pilot episode that sets the stage perfectly for the season to come.

The premise is nothing new in apocalypse fiction on the outset. There was a virus that caused a global pandemic and then collapse, and the series follows the survivors as they pick up the pieces in the wreck. What makes The Last of Us unique is how it portrays said fiction. The virus, for one, isn’t even a virus – it’s fungal. This adds an extra layer of terror as while virus and diseases can’t be cured, fungal infections can’t so how do you fight something that can’t be stopped through normal means? And then when the survivors do try to live, how do you live with the knowledge the air itself could kill you?

The other big thing The Last of Us has in it’s favour though is it’s cast, which is refreshingly grey in it’s morality compared to other zombie media. While shows like The Walking Dead like to claim that they love their anti-heroes or their grey aligned characters, there is no denying that there are clear heroes and villains. The Last of Us instead presents a world that is realistic and breathing, one with people just trying to live another day, one step at a time. It’s not always pretty, but it manages to keep every character likable by grounding them in an emotional context related to some other character or thing. They are fighting for something, somebody else, an idea. There is always something else.

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey immediately capture the essence of their characters, particularly Ramsey whose infectious sarcasm and rough sides are played up here to strong effect. While her best stuff is still to come – and her even better stuff even this season if it does continue – she already makes a great case as to why Ellie is one of gaming’s most interesting female characters. And Pascal? He’s predictably great, but we knew that going in and there is something to be said on how detached he ends up playing Joel. He’s not particularly showy, but the trauma of losing his daughter – played by a very good Nico Parker in the opening prologue – has effectively turned him into a shell of the man he once knew.

Taking inspiration from the game’s cinematography when needed and injecting his own flair otherwise, Mazin captures the locales of the ruins of Boston immaculately, though I found his impressive staging and long oners during the prologue far more interesting. In fact, the entire prologue works as a killer short film in it’s own right, depicting the slow deterioration of society through the lens of a needless tragedy. It’s an emotionally crippling half hour of television, and while the rest of the episode doesn’t reach the same emotional highs you are already so sold it doesn’t matter. The final images are an effective coda as well, letting everything come full circle and setting the stage for what is sure to be an impressive run of episodes.

Everybody else has been praising this show to death so you don’t need to hear it from me, but still, The Last of Us really is that good and deserves your attention. It’s the kind of adaptation most things would kill for, one that manages to capture the essence of it’s material while still giving it’s own feel and identity. A nigh perfect premiere.

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